Scientist and St. George Kick Start finalist Philip Ellery has always been interested in how we reuse waste streams in a circular economy, and how we feed the world as populations grow and pressure mounts on our agricultural systems. Ellery, who has a background in microbiology, developed Sustinent, an innovative biotech solution, to try and tackle both global problems at the same time.
Here, Ellery explains how Sustinent not only champions more sustainable farming practices, but has potential to tackle the big issue of global food security.
4 minute read
After a year of thinking time courtesy of the Advance Queensland Founders Fellowship and a series of pivots, Phillip Ellery founded Sustinent with business partner Peter Tomich in 2018. Partnering with crop producers, it’s their mission to transform often problematic green waste into nutritionally enhanced livestock feed.
“The global agricultural sector generates around 100 billion tonnes of green waste each year and it’s largely underutilised – it’s really an untapped resource,” says Ellery.
“Using microbes already used in food production, similar to those used to brew beer and make cheese, we can convert that tough and nutritionally void material into a healthy, protein-rich feed for animals,” he explains.
Sustinent is already gaining recognition within the Australian agricultural sector, both for its potential to support more sustainable farming practices and as a reliable source of stockfeed. It’s been particularly appealing for drought-stricken areas and other communities impacted by climate change.
Its biggest project to date is a collaboration with the NSW sugar industry, commercially known as Sunshine Sugar. “The industry produces about 300,000 tonnes of sugarcane waste each year and only a proportion of it is reused,” says Ellery.
Through its pilot facility in Harwood in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, where much of Sunshine Sugar’s production is based, Sustinent is converting some of this sugarcane biomass into feed for local cattle farmers.
Farmers have historically relied on methods such as setting their fields on fire to get rid of loose and dead sugarcane leaves, he says, and the industry has long sought an alternative.
“It’s also about helping to secure the viability of the sugar industry,” says Ellery. “As a relatively small player, the Australian industry is under pressure from global producers. Farmers are keen to extract value out of every part of their crop. Our process provides an economically viable and environmentally friendly way to do that.”
Even as start-ups go, it’s been a challenge to get Sustinent off the ground. “We do borrow concepts from industries that already use microbes, but of course it’s not just about that little bit of science that enables the whole thing.
“There has been a lot of R&D to get the process working – everything from the lab-scale work that we do up here on the Gold Coast, where I’m based, to how we transfer that knowledge to on-site. Then there’s the logistics to think about, and the engineering question around how you collect and process such large volumes of material.”
At the moment they have engineers working on blueprints for a scaled-up pilot facility, also in Harwood, which will have the capacity to process up to 10,000 tonnes of sugarcane waste each year. “We have ambitious targets and plan to have it up and running soon, so there’s a lot of work to be done.”
In terms of funding these aims, Ellery says, “we’re fortunate to have found a good group of investors who believe in us and Sunshine Sugar has been an exceptional partner”.
As well as driving more sustainable farming practices within the sugar industry, Sustinent has proven its process works for wheat and barley stubble, with an active project in Western Victoria.
Now with three new hires, the team is also actively pursuing opportunities beyond cattle feed. “We’ve been looking at a specialty product for horses, and more recently we’ve been producing a very high protein commodity that we think would be useful in poultry and pork production, and even aquaculture.”
Ellery’s ambitions, however, are not limited to feeding livestock. “At the moment we’re using microbes to increase the protein content and improve the digestibility of crop waste to convert it into food that livestock can eat. But if we push that system harder, we’re confident we can produce protein and other food products to feed people directly.”
There’s potential application in other industries, too. “With subtle tweaks of the platform we can make composite materials for the construction industry, and materials that could replace polystyrene in packaging, for instance.”
And it doesn’t stop there; Sustinent has just started exploring how it could apply its technology to the space program. “NASA has already run some experiments using a process very similar to ours to manufacture houses using materials they can grow up on the moon or on the surface of Mars – we’re pretty interested in how we can tap into that,” Ellery explains. It seems, when it comes to Sustinent’s potential, the sky (and the moon) is the limit.
Sustinent is a Kick Start 2020 finalist. To learn more about other finalists in this category, visit the St. George Kick Start hub.